Recent US-CERT & FBI Alert A Good Read — Applicable to Us

March 19, 2018

The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) recently released an alert about sophisticated attacks against individuals and infrastructure that contained an excellent explanation of the series of attacker techniques that are applicable to all global Financial Services enterprises. Many of the techniques are possible and effective because of the availability of direct Internet connections. Absent direct Internet connectivity, many of the techniques detailed in the CERT alert would be ineffective.

Global Financial Services enterprises, responsible for protecting hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars (other people’s money) are attractive cybercrime targets. We are also plagued by hucksters & hypesters who are attempting to transform our companies into what they claim will be disruptive, agile organizations using one or another technical pitch that simply translates into “anything, anywhere, anytime.”  The foundation of these pitches seems to be “Internet everywhere” or even “replace your inconvenient internal networks with the Internet” while eliminating those legacy security and constraining security practices.

We can all learn from the details in this Alert.

From the alert:

[The] alert provides information on Russian government actions targeting U.S. Government entities as well as organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors. It also contains indicators of compromise (IOCs) and technical details on the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by Russian government cyber actors on compromised victim networks. DHS and FBI produced this alert to educate network defenders to enhance their ability to identify and reduce exposure to malicious activity.

DHS and FBI characterize this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks. After obtaining access, the Russian government cyber actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally, and collected information pertaining to Industrial Control Systems (ICS).

Take the time to review it. Replace “industrial control systems” with your most important systems as you read.

For many of us, the material may be useful in our outreach and educational communications.

The 20-some recommendations listed in the “General Best Practices Applicable to this Campaign” section also seem applicable to Financial Services.

REFERENCES
“Alert (TA18-074A) Russian Government Cyber Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical Infrastructure Sectors.” Release date: March 15, 2018. https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA18-074A

“Cyberattacks Put Russian Fingers on the Switch at Power Plants, U.S. Says.” By Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger,The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/us/politics/russia-cyberattacks.html

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Adult Behavior

February 8, 2018

John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) died yesterday.  Many of us haven’t had the opportunity to meet him, but it would have been difficult in our business to avoid being touched by some aspect of his work.  His diverse accomplishments suggest that he was an extremely curious, intelligent, sensitive, and energetic individual.

For decades he was influential across a number of dimensions of Internet evolution.
His work and that of the EFF have been valuable risk management enablers for decades.

In addition, Mr. Barlow shared some guidance on adult behavior that seems like excellent input for anyone engaged in or hoping to join Financial Services risk management.  In the presence of a diverse spectrum of pressures we all work within, and under a non-stop rain of security product/service marketing, it is easy to get overly-focused on technology and process.  While they are essential, they are also insufficient.  Global Financial Services enterprises are complex, dynamic entities that — for long term success — seem to require those of us in information security & risk management strive to exhibit the behaviors that are succinctly summarized in Barlow’s Principles, and to be called out by our peers when we fail.  Make some time to read them.

REFERENCES:
Barlow’s “Principles of Adult Behavior
https://www.mail-archive.com/silklist@lists.hserus.net/msg08034.html
John Perry Barlow:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Perry_Barlow
EFF:
https://www.eff.org/
EFF Background: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_Frontier_Foundation
Barlow’s still thought provoking 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:”
https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence


Cloud Risk Assessment Challenge Thoughts

February 3, 2018

Technology is often at the center of efforts to sell new business models. From some perspectives, “Cloud” is more about new business models than about technology-enabled capabilities. Over the last decade or more, “cloud” marketers and hypists have constructed intricate structures of propaganda that trap the unwary in a matrix, a fog, a web of artifice and deceit.[1]  I think that a “cloud first” belief system is misused in ways that sometimes results in excessive risk-taking.  Belief systems are tricky to deal with and can cause some to dismiss or ignore inputs that might impact core tenets or dogma.

My reading and first hand experience lead me to believe that many are willing to migrate operations to other people’s computers — “the cloud” — without clearly evaluating impacts to their core mission, their risk management story-telling, and risk posture. Too many cloud vendors remain opaque to risk assessment, while leaning heavily on assertions of “compliance” and alignment with additionally hyped ancillary practices [containers, agile, encryption, etc.].

None of this rant implies that all Internet-centric service providers are without value. My core concern is with the difficulty in determining the risks associated with using one or another of them for given global Financial Services use cases.  That difficulty is only amplified when some involved exist within a reality-resisting “cloud first” belief system.

Because some “cloud” business models are exceptionally misaligned with global Financial Services enterprise needs and mandates, it is critically important to understand them. A given “cloud” vendor’s attack surface combined with a prodigious and undisciplined risk appetite can result in material misalignment with Financial Services needs. Again, this does not invalidate all “cloud” providers for all use cases, it elevates the importance of performing careful, thorough, clear-headed, evidence-informed risk assessments.  In our business, we are expected, even required, to protect trillions of dollars of other people’s money, to live up to our long and short term promises, and to comply with all relevant laws, regulations, and contracts.  And we are expected to do so in ways that are transparent enough for customers, prospects, regulators, and others to determine if we are meeting their expectations.

  • Evidence is not something to be used selectively to support beliefs.
  • Research is not hunting for justifications of existing beliefs.
  • Hunt for evidence. Use your cognitive capabilities to evaluate it.
  • Soberly analyze your beliefs.
  • Let the evidence influence your beliefs.
  • When needed, build new beliefs.[2]

Effective risk management has little room for anyone captured within a given belief system or abusing the power to create one’s own reality.

This remains a jumbled and unfinished thought that I will continue to evolve here.

What do you think?

[1] Derived from a phrase by Michelle Goldberg.
[2] Thank you Alex Wall, Johnston, IA. Author of a Letter to the Editor in the Feb 3, 2018 Des Moines Register.


Another Exfiltration Tool

January 30, 2018

It is a challenge to keep up with the free HTTPS-enabled data exfiltration tools available.  As security professionals in global Financial Services enterprise, we have obligations to exhibit risk-reasonable behaviors.  Resisting easy, “invisible” data theft is a core deliverable in our layered security services.

Google is offering a cool “Cloud Shell” that falls into the category I was thinking of when I wrote the paragraph above.  It is a highly-functional Linux shell that is available to anyone with https access to the Internet.  There are lots of good reasons for Google to offer this service.  And they require an active credit card for initial on-boarding — allowing some to argue that there are limits to the anonymity this service might deliver.  There are also lots of global Financial Services enterprise misuse cases.  Quick, easy, difficult-to-understand data exfiltration being the first that came to mind.  Hosting “trustworthy” command and control applications is another.  With Internet access, sudo, and persistent storage the only limitations seem to be the creativity of any given hostile party.

Financial Services brands managing trillions of dollars for others need to protect against the misuse of tooling like this.  The challenge is that some of us use Google Cloud services for one or another subset of our business activities. And in those approved contexts, that represents risk-reasonable behavior.

This situation is just another example of external forces driving our internal priorities in ways that will require a quick response, and will also induce ongoing risk management workload.

So it goes.

REFERENCE:

Google Cloud Shell: https://cloud.google.com/shell/


Risk-Taking and Secure-Enough Software

January 24, 2018

Each of us involved in global Financial Services enterprises have risk management strategy and policy.  In action, those are supported and operationalized through a vast, dynamic, organic, many-dimensional web of risk management activities.

One facet of this activity involves the creation, acquisition, implementation, and use of risk-appropriate software. Sometimes this is abbreviated to simply “secure software.” In some forums I use the term “secure-enough software” to help highlight that there is some risk-related goal setting and goal achieving that needs to be architected, designed, and coded into software we create — or the same needs to be achieved by our vendors or partners when we acquire software.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in this blog, global financial services enterprises succeed through taking goal-aligned risks. Our attempts to live out that challenge are at best uneven.

Some software developers, architects, or some agile team member will zealously and enthusiastically take risks in their attempts to improve a given or a set of software quality characteristics. Others only reluctantly take risks.[1] In either case, the risks are only vaguely described (if at all) and the analysis of their appropriateness is opaque and un- or under-documented.

My experience is that too many personnel have little to no involvement, training and context on which to ground their risk analysis and risk acceptance decision making.  As a result of that gap, risk acceptance throughout any software development lifecycle is too often based on project momentum, emotion, short term self-promotion, fiction, or some version of risk management theater.

The magnitude of risk associated with this type of risk taking has only been enlarged by those attempting to extract value from one or another cloud thing or cloud service.

Those of us involved in secure software work need to clearly express the extent of our localized organization’s willingness to take risk in order to meet specific objectives, AND how the resulting behaviors align with published and carefully vetted enterprise strategic (risk management) objectives.

All of this leads me to the topic of risk appetite.

  • What needs to be included in a description of risk appetite that is intended for those involved in software development and acquisition?
  • Are there certain dimensions of software-centric risk management concern that need to be accounted for in that description of risk appetite?
  • Are there certain aspects of vocabulary that need to be more prescribed than others in order to efficiently train technical personnel about risk-taking in a global financial services enterprise?
  • Are there rules of thumb that seem to help when attempting to assess the appropriateness of given software-centric risks?

What do you think?

REFERENCES:

Risk Appetite and Tolerance Executive Summary.
A guidance paper from the Institute of Risk Management September 2011
https://www.theirm.org/media/464806/IRMRiskAppetiteExecSummaryweb.pdf

[1] A similar phrase is found in the abstract of “Risk Appetite in Architectural Decision-Making.” by Andrzej Zalewski. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7958473/

 


Ransomware and My Cloud

December 10, 2017

I just reviewed descriptions of sample incidents associated with ransomware outlined in the ‘Top 10″ review by TripWire.

Ransomware attacks — malware that encrypts your data followed by the attacker attempting to extort money from you for the decryption secrets — are a non-trivial threat to most of us as individuals and all financial services enterprises.

Unfortunately for some, their corporate culture tends to trust workforce users’ access to vast collections of structured and unstructured business information.  That ‘default to trust’ enlarges the potential impacts of a ransomware attack.

As global Financial Services security professionals, we need to resist the urge to share unnecessarily.

We need to quickly detect and respond to malware attacks in order to constrain their scope and impacts.  Because almost every global Financial Services enterprise represents a complex ecosystem of related and in some cases dependent operations, detection may involve many layers, technologies, and activities.  It is not just mature access/privilege management, patching, anti-virus, or security event monitoring, or threat intelligence alone.

All of us also need to ensure that we have a risk-relevant post-ransomware attack data recovery capability that is effective across all our various business operations.

So, does the cloud make me safe from ransomware attack?  No.  Simply trusting your cloud vendor (or their hype squad) on this score does not reach the level of global Financial Services due diligence.  It seems safe to assert that for any given business process, the countless hardware, software, process, and human components that make up any cloud just make it harder to resist and to recovery from ransomware attack.  And under many circumstances, the presence of cloud infrastructure — by definition, managed by some other workforce using non-Financial Services-grade endpoints — increases the probability of this family of malware attack.

 

REFERENCE:

“10 of the Most Significant Ransomware Attacks of 2017.” By David Bisson, 12-10-2017. https://www.tripwire.com/state-of-security/security-data-protection/cyber-security/10-significant-ransomware-attacks-2017/​


Innovation and Secure Software

November 15, 2017

​I sometimes get questions about the applicability of secure software standards and guidelines to work described as innovation or innovative.  Sometimes these interactions begin with an outright rejection of “legacy” risk management in the context of an emerging new “thing.”  I believe that under most circumstances, any conflict that begins here is voluntary and avoidable.  As global financial services organizations, our risk management obligations remain in force for mature & stable development projects as well as for innovation-oriented efforts.

In any discussion of innovation, I arrive with my own set of assumptions:

  • Innovation can occur at all levels of the human, business, operations, technology stack, and often requires concurrent change at multiple layers.
  • Innovation, in any context, does not invalidate our risk management obligations.
  • One of the most common and insidious innovation anti-patterns is constantly looking for the next hot tool that’s going to solve our/your problems.*

Software-centric innovation may generate new or help highlight existing gaps in your secure software standards/guidelines.

If there are gaps in your existing secure software guidance — so that the new “thing” seems to be out of phase and disconnected from that legacy, those gaps need to be closed.

Sometimes gaps like these appear because of changes in vocabulary.  This is generally an easy issue to deal with.  If all involved can agree on the trajectory of the innovative development, then you can begin with something as simple as a memo of understanding, with updates to secure software standards/guidelines to follow at a pace determined by the priority of that work (if there is a formal, fines & penalties regulatory compliance issue involved, it is a higher priority than if were only an exercise in keeping your documentation up-to-date).

Other times an organization is introducing a new business process, a new type of business, or a new technology that does not map well to the existing concepts and/or assumptions expressed in your secure software standards/guidance.  An example of this situation occurred as we all began to invest in native mobile apps.  At that time, mobile app ecosystems did not incorporate a lot of the common security mechanisms and capabilities that had been in place for server and desktop environments for a long time.  This type of change requires a mix of simple vocabulary and content change in corporate secure software standards/guidance.  Again, if those involved can agree on some fundamental assumptions about what the new software is doing and where it is executing, along with sharing an understanding of its external behaviors (passing data, resolving names, signaling, trusts, etc.), you can take a multi-step process to get secure software guidance synchronized with your business environment.  The first step being some sort of formal memo of understanding, followed by the research, collaboration, and writing required to get your secure software standards/guidelines and your business operations back into phase.

Is it possible that your enterprise could introduce something so alien and so disruptively new that there was just no connective tissue between that investment and your existing secure software guidance?  Sure.  What if financial services enterprises decided that they needed to begin building our own proprietary hardware (from the chips all the way up the stack to network I/O) to deal with the combination of gigantic data-sets, complex analyses, and extremely short timelines (throw in some ML & AI to add sex appeal).  Our current generation of secure software standards/guidelines would not likely be well aligned with the risk management challenges presented by microchip architecture, design, implementation and the likely tightly-coupled low level software development that would be required to use them.  I would not be surprised if much of what we have currently published in our organizations would be virtually unrelatable to what would be needed to address the scenario above.  I think that the only businesslike path to dealing with that secure software challenge would be to acquire highly-specialized, experienced human resource to guide us through that kind of dis-contiguous evolution.  That would be a material challenge, but one that our business will not often face.

Given the current state of our secure software training and guidance resources, it seems like most of us in global Financial Services enterprises should expect to find that most ​innovation efforts are aligned-enough with the existing secure software standards/guidelines, or (less frequently) only somewhat out of sync because of differences in vocabulary, or misaligned underlying assumptions or concepts.  Those are expected as part of our evolving software-driven businesses and the evolution of hostile forces that our businesses are exposed to.

So, innovate!  Any of our success in the global financial services marketplace is not guaranteed.  And, dive into working through decision-making about your architecture, design, and implementation risk management obligations.  And finally, use the existing technical and human resources available to you to deal with any new risk management challenges along the way.

* Rough quote from: “Practical Monitoring: Book Review and Q&A with Mike Julian.” By Daniel Bryant, Nov 07, 2017. https://www.infoq.com/articles/practical-monitoring-mike-julian.


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